God gave us an incredible gift in music. As Martin Luther said, "Music is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God."
I've always been a music fanatic. I remember even as a small child playing the same song over and over and over again, singing at the top of my lungs. I'm a heart guy; I've always been moved to strongly express myself with music. I just do it by default. And since I've been saved, this desire is tied to the recognition of the sinfulness of my flesh, the pressure and pain of the world around me, and ultimately the hope rooted in knowing that none of these things have the power to snatch me out of God's hand, that Jesus Christ has secured my future and overcome the world in what he did on the cross.
Though I seem to understand it in an emotional sense, over the years I've had to do some serious thinking about why music is used in our church services, particularly since I'm one of the people responsible for this aspect of the Sunday service in our local body. I think we often worship music. Sometimes we even worship our worship services. I get the "I really loved your worship today" comment often. My typical response is, "Did you worship, too?" Or, sometimes, I get the reverse: "I just couldn't worship because the guitar was out of tune." I want to ask if they also can’t love their wife when they’re out on a date simply because the restaurant has bad service.
Worship is not music. The term "worship" is simply the basic acknowledgment that something or someone is greater and worth more than anything else. Whatever I value most, long for most, desire to talk about and express the most, that is what I worship.
So, if music isn't worship, why do we use music in our Sunday service? Whenever we attempt to put structure in our lives, the Bible is the authoritative place to begin. The Bible is full of declarations of godly people singing to God. Psalm 9:11, 30:4, 66:2-4, 95:1-2, 100:2, 105:2, 135:3, for example, specifically command us to sing. These commands should be reason enough for the Christian to sing, but I think we can examine it further.
Romans 8:22-23 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”
Further on in Romans 8:26, Paul writes, “. . . the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
Neither of these passages is specifically referring to music, but they do speak to a type of communication that goes beyond words, a very personal method of receiving and giving thoughts and feelings. Music affects us emotionally and physically. It creates a mood and softens our hearts. It aids our memory and focuses our attention (or distracts, depending on the music/context). If you don't agree with me, imagine watching your favorite movie without the soundtrack playing.
Through music we express things that we cannot express in words. A minor chord progression resonates with the tension in our souls. A key change or octave jump stirs our hearts. We suddenly have an understanding of a concept that goes much deeper than if we had simply read the lyrics of the song. In music, God has given us a way to create fertile ground in the soul, and then apply His truth to that fertility. In this action, He is seen for who he is – lifted up, set apart – and we are moved to repentance, to rejoicing and to drawing closer to Him.
The Bible, our source of all truth, references moments when people worshipping could be heard up to 10 miles away from the temple, and other times people were in silence, flat on their faces. It refers to body language used in worship: clapping, singing, bowing, kneeling, lifting hands, shouting, dancing, standing in awe.
The bottom line: God didn't make us to be disembodied spirits, nor are we just chemicals and biology. We can't separate ourselves from emotions when we get excited or sad. Nor can we distill worship of God down to intellectual discussion of truths. God's command is to love him with our heart, soul, mind, and strength. When we engage our whole selves in declaring God is greater and worth more than anything (worshipping!), bodies and emotions included, He is pleased.
I think that's permission enough to let loose and sing out. But don't lose yourself in the electric guitar. Lose yourself in Jesus. Don't crave 35 minutes of emotional engagement. Crave emotional engagement with Jesus. Overtones and harmonics are incredible, but Jesus is more incredible because he created them. Music should be an arrow, pointing you toward the target of God.
So, on Sunday morning as I sing and play my guitar, the music should simply facilitate your already worshipping hearts to join in gathering around Jesus, the Glorious One. Together we can lose ourselves in that great human emotion which cannot co-exist with pride and selfishness.